It's too soon to tell whether Ted Nugent's noxious career as a conservative pundit reached a tipping point this week, but the moment he called in sick to CNN and backed out of a scheduled interview with Erin Burnett as Republican politicians denounced him might soon be seen as a flash point for the fading rock star and the incendiary brand of hate rhetoric he's been cashing in on for years. It might also be viewed as a key stumbling moment for the conservative media, which have been unable in recent years to establish any sort of guardrails for common decency within the realm of political debate.
Increasingly reliant on bad fringe actors like Nugent to connect with their far, far-right audience, the conservative media have built up Obama-bashing personalities who no longer occupy any corner of the American mainstream. Yet Nugent enjoys deep ties with Republican campaigns all across the country. When those ties receive media scrutiny, they cannot be defended.
National Rifle Association board member Nugent found himself at the center of a campaign controversy this week when he was invited to two public events for Texas Republican Greg Abbott, who is running for governor. Of course Nugent, a former Washington Times columnist who now writes for birther website WND, recently called President Obama a "communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel" and has a long and vivid history of launching vile attacks on women. (He's called Hillary Clinton a "toxic cunt.")
Following waves of condemnations for the association, and a torrent of critical media coverage, with reporters and pundits wondering why a gubernatorial candidate would voluntarily campaign with someone who spouts "insane and racist talk," as CNN's Jake Tapper put it, Abbott claimed he wasn't aware of Nugent history of racist and misogynistic comments. If so, Abbott's campaign staff is utterly incompetent. (The "subhuman mongrel" comment, unearthed last month by Media Matters, was highlighted by a number of outlets at the time, including on MSNBC.)
It's likely Abbott and his staff did know about Nugent's dark rhetoric, since that's all he traffics in. But because that kind of hate speech has become so accepted and even celebrated within the bubble for right-wing media, they failed to see the danger of embracing it.
Following the ill-fated campaign events, which made national headlines, Abbott has defended the decision to bring Nugent to the state, claiming that in Texas politics Nugent remain popular. But if inviting Nugent to become an Abbott surrogate was so clever, why did likely Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul step forward to denounce Nugent and his "offensive" Obama commentary?
Ted Nugent's derogatory description of President Obama is offensive and has no place in politics. He should apologize.-- Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) February 21, 2014
Why did Abbott's fellow Texan, Gov. Rick Perry "recommend" Nugent apologize? And why did Nugent back out of his CNN interview just two hours before taping?
As the media scrutiny settled on Nugent, even staunch conservative Republicans have been unable to defend him - his commentary over the years is just too vile. If the Abbott campaign didn't directly insist on the CNN cancellation (Nugent cited illness), it's fair to say his aides were greatly relieved that Nugent didn't fuel the story for another 24-hour news cycle via an extended CNN interview where no doubt more confused Nazi analogies would have been aired. (CNN's Wolf Blitzer had already condemned Nugent's comments, noting that the phrase "subhuman mongrel" bore resemblance to "untermensch," which is "what the Nazis called Jews ... to justify the genocide of the Jewish community.")
And then there was Fox News, Nugent's longtime ally in the pursuit of Obama demagoguery, and where just last month Bill O'Reilly welcomed Nugent. As Abbott's self-inflicted wound deepened this week, and as news outlets all across the country addressed the clumsy campaign association, Fox News went silent. Not only refusing to defend Nugent, Fox wouldn't even cover the burgeoning controversy.
The network - which was happy to give Nugent a softball interview just two weeks ago - still hasn't mentioned the firestorm over his campaigning with Abbott.
Ted Nugent has been practicing his brand of openly vile hate for a very long time. And with each passing year of the Obama administration he's been welcomed deeper and deeper into the heart of the conservative media machine. This week's Abbott uproar was instructive in that the bright spotlight shone on Nugent helped remind people just how radical, dangerous and out of touch that movement has become, and how that hate cannot be hidden.